|I'm helping fill in for Von...|
I've recently had to step into the breach over at House of Paincakes with one of their organisers over there Lauby. We've both had to fill in for Von, one of their regular writers, who is currently mid house move, and thus doesn't have the time to churn out articles right now. To be brutally honest I'm not too sure either Lauby or myself were quite as well prepared for 'filling in' for Von as we could've been. But, what this has meant is that what we have done is create an interesting discussion around a topic that has got me thinking quite deeply, so as I say it has at least been interesting to me. Hopefully what it has sparked within me you will find interesting too. I've often spoken about our hobby's need for evangelists, and I still think that we as gamers have a duty to evangelise and recruit for the hobby. After all we too have a vested interest in keeping our hobby going and thriving, it's in our own interests to grow our local communities. However, my conversations with Lauby over at House of Paincakes have focused on the industry's role in all of this, in short are they taking the piss? Do they do enough themselves or are they far too reliant on us gamers to do the hard work for them? In the first conversation we touched on whether the hobby is producing the sort of gateway products that are required to help successfully rope new gamers into the hobby.
|The impressive St Louis Gateway Arch|
It's a difficult topic to define, and a difficult task for the companies themselves to broach. It's not easy for a company to produce a single successful game, let alone an extra separate product to suck people to that game as a gateway. But firstly let me define what I believe a gateway product is. In my second conversation with Lauby I think I did a good job of defining what I view as a gateway product. In that article I mentioned what I consider to be the holy trinity of wargaming, collecting miniatures (including painting), playing the games and reading the back story. These three things will have different levels of importance to us all individually, but all are intrinsic to what we call 'the hobby'. Without one of those facets I think it's clear to see that what is presented or served up to us is somewhat diminished. Pre-painted miniature games aren't 'the hobby', and painting without the games is something entirely different also, both 'hobbies' have their merits, but they're not 'the hobby'. Also a number of companies who have started selling a game without a strong backstory have rapidly learned of such elements relative importance to the sale of their product as a whole. As Mantic are just now discovering with Kings of War, and look to be addressing now by building a strong background with the announcement that the 3rd edition of Kings of War is getting a proper rulebook release... complete with full Mantica background!
|Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's - Two Trinities|
So if we break these three elements apart we can see that fundamentally there are actually quite a few ways of 'hooking' people into the hobby via exposing people to one or two elements at a time. I think the fundamental core of the hobby though is around collecting and painting miniatures to play games. I think if asked to define the hobby that is the sort of description that most of us would come up with, wouldn't it? Any way I think Lauby's and my own instant reaction therefore was to think of products that provide this vital crux of the hobby when we talked about gateway products. Hence us first talking about Heroquest, Space Crusade and their ilk in those House of Paincakes articles, others too fall into this same trap, but there are other products and ways of developing gateway products. But it's these sorts of board game based products that roped me into 'the hobby' as a child, and I guess they were actually really quite successful at snaring their prey back then when I was starting out. I still believe those sorts of products actually have a vital place within the industry and I would love to see more of them, Fantasy Flight Games, Asmodee and many more besides churn out exceptional board games with a broader market appeal... but do they actually lead on into the wider hobby? Are they fully integrated with it, or are they part of a different subset of the industry?
I personally think they're a subset of the industry, a different facet of gaming if you will. Ironically many of Fantasy Flight Games products are actually living off of spin-off sales from the industry behemoth that is Games Workshop, when they could actually help grow Games Workshops recruitment rate. There we have a company that actually produces great gateway products thriving off of the popularity of a wargames company, and I'm sure selling in many respects to the wrong crowd from an industry wide growth perspective. Where those products need to be is in toy shops, supermarkets or other major high street retailers. It's no good from a growth in participant numbers perspective shifting product to the same old customers. It might be successful in a capital growth perspective by sweating more money out of their current customer base, but that's a fragile plan, and it has clearly got a natural ceiling limit on it, as we as consumers only have so much disposable income between us. If all these companies are doing is actually having a bun fight over an already established marketplace is it really going to grow the industry as a whole, or damage it in the long run?
That of course is a rhetorical question, yes it is, don't argue with me I'm on a roll here, the answer is of course no, it's not going to grow the industry's marketplace and yes it'll damage the health of the industry in the long run! Here I think is where other companies in the industry do really owe Games Workshop an absolutely massive debt of gratitude. Quite simply put, without Games Workshops ceaseless, never ending drive for new recruits to the hobby, and their pretty darn impressive high street presence, then I don't believe other companies would be thriving in the way that they seem to be right now. Simply put, without Games Workshop being there I'm not so sure Privateer Press, Battlefront and all the others would be doing as well as they are. Obviously you could argue that without Games Workshop somebody else would have occupied that market space, but reality is we'll never know, so they rightly get the plaudits for now. But I've had a worry over recent years about Games Workshops ability to keep recruiting at their current rate, and indeed with the products that they sell.
|They might not be popular with some, but what they do is vital for the industry.|
Let's be clear here about what I'm talking about, it is the cost, scope and scale of Games Workshops two main products and games of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 that are at a point whereby I think they actively discourage many newcomers to the hobby. They're simply too big, prohibitively so I believe and the task of buying, assembling and painting those miniatures is so daunting for many that I've seen many customers turned off before they've even tried the hobby. When I worked at a Games Workshop store I had a manager who was actually rightly proud of the fact that for every four new customers that walked through that shops door, his staff produced three new gamers. Now other stores weren't doing quite as well as that in the area, or possibly nationally, but many weren't that far off of those figures. The product wasn't as daunting in many respects, and it was far easier to find a way into the hobby. There were specialist games, Lord of the Rings was a smaller scale game and the films were hugely popular, but without a shadow of a doubt during all this it was still the two main products of Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 that we were recruiting to the most. No question about it, but other factors like Specialist Games helped us in our task.
|Why don't they still sell pure games in a box?|
When I speak to many of the store managers that I know now they'd be happy to get recruitment figures of 1 in 10, and I think given the initial cost of getting everything together to start playing those games, if they are doing that then they're doing a damn fine job. The other issue of course is that I can see all too well that they're not getting as many new customers through those doors as they once were either, so it's almost like a double whammy. It seems to me that Games Workshops product has hit an uncomfortable size, scale and simplification point that has put them in a little spot of bother for me. For a newcomer their product is easy to learn, it is easy to play and it is accessible from a rules perspective... but their product is now so expensive and daunting that it is actively turning people away. Then at the other end we have experienced gamers who have all they need to play the games and are 'invested' already, and who are put off by starting any new armies because of the cost, but also vitally, put off investing further into games that I often hear being described as dumbed down.
|They tried a game in a box but I feel they missed the point.|
I'm not going to get into whether that is the case or not, but it is certainly the case that the perception is amongst many gamers that Games Workshop simply aren't recruiting as many gamers as they once were. Don't get me wrong they still recruit impressive numbers by industry standards, just not as much as they once were, meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum they seem to be hemorrhaging customers to competitors at a far greater rate than I've ever seen before. I'd love to actually sit down with the stats to see if that is actually true, or just how true it is, but it does feel about right in terms of a guesstimation of their current situation. The scale of the issue though is what is debatable right now. So the question is if the industry is starting to lose its biggest recruiter, and is actually in many respects directly harming them, then when are these other companies going to step up to the plate and start doing some bloody recruitment themselves? Because as far as I can see Privateer Press are set up to syphon off disgruntled Games Workshop rage quitters, and most of the other companies out there are trying to do the exact same thing. It's a valid business plan as of now, but will it always remain so?
That business plan only works if two things actually continue to happen:
- Games Workshop continue to be able to recruit at the same levels they always have done, and it's currently debatable whether they are capable of doing this.
- And that between 7 to 10 years into their hobby careers most gamers still become disgruntled with Games Workshops products.
This is my point, the rest of the industry has to wait for Games Workshop to piss some of their recruits and current customer base off before they get to have a crack at them. There is a time lag between recruitment by Games Workshop and poaching by Mantic, Battlefront, Privateer Press, Corvus Belli et al. If Games Workshop ever do start seriously struggling for recruitment these companies won't feel the pain of that straight away themselves, it'll take a couple of years time lag before their own business plans weaknesses are fully exposed. If they haven't prepared for that or planned to recruit themselves there is a strong chance that they won't be able to take the hit. My solution? Start bloody trying to recruit your own customers right now!
|Monsterapocalpse could be great gateway product.|
Games Workshops high street presence is an expensive and costly burden for them, so they appear to me to have gotten themselves into an awful negative spiral. This spiral is seeing them increase the cost of their product above inflation every year here in the UK and also over time increase the number of individual purchases you have to make to play their games. They're doing this to try and support this expensive beast of a retail chain and head office they've developed in support of its recruitment machine. Yet this very process it seems to me is actually counterproductive to their main business plans aim of recruit, recruit and recruit some more. But, these smaller more nimble companies don't have the same sorts of problems that Games Workshop do, Games Workshop needs to look at a complete rethink and restructuring before they can respond to the marketplace. Not so these smaller firms, their products are only supporting normally relatively small business operations and usually no retail chain presence at all. They are reliant on independents stocking their products, and no doubt those very same retailers own survival probably depends on selling Games Workshop product. We need some more companies to start stepping up to the plate in my opinion not just for the independents but also themselves.
|I think we need more of this sort of product in the right shops!|
I'm not advocating Privateer Press or Battlefront should start setting up their own retail presence and start developing their own retail chain, no because I think that's a costly way to go about things, and actually not the smartest way either. I'm saying they need to start developing products specifically as gateway products that can be sold in book stores like Black Library books are. I think some Infinity comics or novels would go down a treat with sci-fi geeks, and the steampunk nature of the HoMachine universe certainly has wider appeal beyond wargamers surely? I want other companies to start producing smaller games and products that can be sold in comic book stores, super markets and other such retailers. I want to see Mantic develop a deluxe version of Dwarf Kings Hold containing all three boxes rolled into one release, with some Army Painter products inside, to be put on the shelves of my local Tesco's. I want to see companies try other avenues and ways of getting their product to market. The world that the hobby finds itself in now is so vastly different from the one that Games Workshop's retail chain led business inhabited in the early 90's. We have massive online retailers and hypermarkets that simply sell everything and anything to everyone. These companies shift product like it's going out of style and they are bloody good at it, so why the hell haven't more games companies tried courting these retailers to help propagate the hobby and sell their product?
Because these retailers exist, they will continue to exist and they are shaping and indeed controlling the way that we as consumers behave in the marketplace. More than 20 years ago the majority of the shopping in my home city of Birmingham was conducted in it's city center. The local authorities economic development departments data states it was a huge amount actually, close to 70% of it. That has now almost flipped 180 degrees on it's head and only 34% of projected spending actually happens in the city center right now, despite huge improvements in the physical environment and the shopping experience. No, the majority of actual spend in Birmingham like most cities around the world now takes place in supermarkets and some out of town shopping centers. That's not even taking into consideration what online shopping has done to our spending habits. The industry needs to wake up to these patterns of behaviour quickly, and exploit them as best they can. Because there is only so much us hobbyists can do to promote on their behalf, there is only so much that small independent retailers can do for them and quite frankly there is only so much Games Workshop can do. It's time some of them stepped up to the plate and played ball, and if they need a star batter with fresh ideas then they know exactly where I am. Peace out!